Show Boat Character Analysis

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Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical Show Boat is revolutionary for being one of the first integrated musicals and for addressing social issues. The first act of Show Boat relies on stereotypes for its black characters, but at least they are present. Not only that, but some of the main characters are black and have the opportunity to draw attention to the struggles they face. The presentation of a character who is only later revealed to mixed race after she has been characterized positively challenges audience members’ attitudes toward and expectations of black people. However, despite the musical’s strengths, it “has long been understood as dramatically weak, lacking an adequate or convincing second act” (Knapp 185). In this second…show more content…
The first people seen in the film are hardworking black people living along the edge of the Mississippi overjoyed at the arrival of the show boat. The audience sees black people singing and dancing along with “Can 't Help Lovin ' Dat Man:” they are lively and fun. The somber chorus of men behind Joe singing along to “Ol’ Man River” are overworked and tired yet dignified, and encourage the audience’s understanding and empathy to their struggle. Although Julie is actually mixed race, it is originally assumed she is white, and Julie’s interactions with the black people on the show boat, particularly the giving of a brooch to Queenie, enforces the idea that white and black people can not only coexist but be good friends. However, in the second act, once the action takes place not on the show boat but in Chicago, black people are not seen at all, even as attendants, until Gaylord leaves Magnolia. The first black person seen in Chicago is mopping the floor. He has a speaking part, but he is shown to have no life other than serving white people who do not treat him kindly. His boss talks to him with disdain and pushes him out of the frame. The depiction of black people in Chicago, or lack thereof, reinforces the idea that black people are not universally present, are not needed, and can be treated…show more content…
At the beginning of Show Boat, both the audience and the characters within the musical assume Julie is a white woman. She is the star of the Cotton Blossom, and admired by Magnolia, Queenie and Joe, and townspeople. She is talented and kind to everyone. When it is revealed that Julie is mixed race, this does not change other characters’ perception of her: they all still love her. This provides the most important message of the entirety of the musical, and tricks bigoted audience viewers into rooting for a woman who isn’t white, teaching them what matters about a person is what’s on the inside, not the color of one’s skin. Julie is an example of a non-white person who is educated and talented, not stereotyped. Unfortunately, Julie and her white husband must leave the show boat, and although they were significant characters in the beginning of the musical, this ends immediately. I assumed the musical would follow them into their new lives, or Julie would somehow return to the show boat, but the characters are suddenly forgotten. What’s worse is Julie’s only reappearance in the film: she is an alcoholic who has been devastated by her husband leaving her and can’t get her life together. This sends an awful message about women in general, and renders Julie a much less powerful figure who suffers because of her race. She sacrifices her job to help Magnolia, but her ending is unclear and
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